Watch What He Says and Does, Not What Others Say About Him
by Rabbi Ira Youdovin
Seeds of distrust sown during the last presidential campaign are bearing bitter fruit as President Obama begins fashioning a new American role in resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict, and the threat of a nuclear Iran.
Folks working against Mr. Obama’s election spread rumors that he is a secret Muslim (after all, his middle name is Hussein!), and that associations with the likes of Rashid Khalidi and Bill Ayers while he was in Chicago reveal a strong antagonism toward Israel. Neither of these canards is anywhere close to reality. Obama is a Christian (albeit for some years with an anti-Israel pastor). And his personal, political and financial ties with Chicago’s Jewish community are stronger than occasional conversations with the other side. At days end, the rumor campaign failed to persuade many Jews; 78 percent voted for Obama. But slander has an unfortunate way of taking root and hanging on.
Much of what Obama and his people have said and done during the past few weeks is open to interpretation, or “spinning” in politicospeak. In this regard, he differs markedly from his predecessor, who tended toward bluntness and hyperbolic phrases like “Axis of Evil.” For example, in his Cairo speech, the president said “The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop.”
How does one understand this? Did the president mean that Israel must stop building new settlements and/or expanding existing ones? Does he want long-standing settlements dismantled, or only the ones built more recently in violation of Israeli law? Undoubtedly, the ambiguity was deliberate and commendable. It allows for wiggle room and thus provides a context for negotiation. But it is red meat for the spinmeisters who have rushed in to parse Obama’s words in accordance with their preconceived notions of the man and his policies. And too often, what we are hearing is an exceedingly dim, sometimes alarmist, assessment of where he stands on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As former Bush speechwriter Noam Neusner rhetorically asked in a recent column for The Forward, “was the Right right about Obama?”
Was it? Every American president in recent memory, including George W. Bush, has opposed Israeli expansionism. The difference is that the incumbent appears to be serious about it. But it is utterly irresponsible to accuse him of seeking to make Judea and Samaria Judenrein when so little is known of his actual intentions, and, more importantly, when nothing in his record supports this draconian, prejudicial conclusion. Moreover, a poll taken soon after the Cairo speech by the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot found that a majority of Israelis support a settlement freeze at this time. Obama may be out of step with the Netanyahu government. But he is in step with the Israeli people.
The same can be said of the president’s advocating an independent Palestinian state, which, it is suggested, sets up a confrontation with Israel. Does it? Israel has long been officially committed to a two-state solution. At the 2007 Annapolis Conference, its representatives signed a joint statement, read aloud by President Bush: “We agreed to immediately launch good faith, bilateral negotiations in order to conclude a peace treaty resolving all outstanding issues, including core issues, without exception,” and that, “The final peace settlement will establish Palestine as a homeland for the Palestinian people just as Israel is the homeland for the Jewish people.”
The confrontation, if one materializes, will not be between the United States and Israel, whose citizens repeatedly tell pollsters that they would accept a Palestinian state committed to peaceful co-existence with its Jewish neighbor. It would be between the United States and Prime Minister Netanyahu, whose absolute rejection of Palestinian sovereignty is inconsistent with the views of his constituents, who gave a plurality of their votes to a candidate committed to eventual Palestinian statehood.
A brouhaha at a recent AIPAC convention is another example of perceptions being colored by erroneous preconceptions. Rahm Emanuel told the delegates that settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would give the United States increased leverage in working to mobilize Arab states in a concerted effort to pressure Iran on the nuclear issue. As The Nation’s Jeffrey Goldberg put it, that’s a “no brainer.” But many Jewish leaders denounced Emanuel’s formulation as linking the Palestinian issue with the Iranian bomb, warning Israel that even ill-advised concessions to Palestinian demands could be a precondition for American assertiveness in protecting it from nuclear attack. Reading heinous threats into self-evident “no brainers” is a form of alchemy that thwarts rational assessment.
Similarly, there was little or no substance in the wide-spread hostile reaction to Obama’s reference to Shoah. He denounced Holocaust denial, (and in Cairo!) calling it “baseless, ignorant and, wrong” and condemned perpetuating “vile stereotypes” of Jews and threatening Israel with destruction. Then, he proceeded to say, “On the other hand…” and went on to describe Palestinian suffering.”
Too many Jewish leaders went ballistic over what some characterized as positing moral equality between Shoah and Nakba, and others characterized as justifying Israel’s legitimacy as compensation for the Holocaust, instead of rooting it in the Jewish People’s long history in the region. In fact, it was neither.
President Obama was doing is what all good mediators do: calling upon antagonists to feel the others’ pain. There’s no suggestion of moral equivalency in saying that both sides have suffered. Nor is reference to Shoah as it impacts on Israeli psyches and souls an argument for the state’s legitimacy. To my mind, at least, his was a refreshing new approach to resolving the conflict.
Rabbi Ira Youdovin edits ARZA E-Alerts. He was ARZA’s first executive director and later, as a volunteer, he chaired the ARZA Reform Zionist Think Tank. Now retired from his position as executive vice president of Chicago Board of Rabbis, he lives in Santa Barbara, CA.